EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 4. Ag Science at Rutgers

It was mid-July 1951, and I was driving north from the farm toward Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, in my red ’36 Dodge pickup along with Dorothy Harris, my girlfriend at the time. Dot, a very pleasant dark-haired girl, who later went on to nursing school, was part of the small group of young people in our rural community.

At Rutgers, where I had been accepted some months earlier, I was scheduled to see Dean of Students Howard Crosby to discuss tuition, which was due at registration. My principal income came from growing tomatoes, but the cannery did not pay for the tomatoes until well after the end of the season, usually in November. I needed to see if they could wait until then for the payment.

As I sat in front of Dean Crosby’s desk, he asked me to repeat my name. He then began leafing through a four-inch-thick, three-ring binder until he came to my name. He asked, “You’re from Cumberland County, right?” I said yes. He said, “You have a four-year full tuition scholarship.”

A weight fell from my shoulders. Some months before, I had gotten a letter from the county superintendent of schools, Roland Mulford, saying that I had been nominated for a state scholarship. I had read the letter with interest, but hearing nothing more, I thought little of it. But here I was with a four-year scholarship, one that I had not even applied for. For a farm boy with meager resources, this was like manna from heaven, a gift from the gods.

Selecting a college had been easy. I wanted to study agriculture, and Rutgers—the land grant university of New Jersey—had an outstanding College of Agriculture. It also offered a major in General Agricultural Science—exactly what I needed as a farmer. The only college to which I applied, it was just 120 miles from the farm, close enough that I could commute on weekends, and more often when needed, to continue farming while in school.

The College of Agriculture offered a rich fare of science courses, leaving me feeling like the proverbial kid in a candy store. A number of basic science courses were required for an agricultural science degree, but many other options were available. Among the courses I feasted on were biology, bacteriology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, geology, soils, soil physics, genetics, meteorology, climatology, entomology, animal physiology, plant physiology, plant pathology, and more-practical courses like plant propagation, animal nutrition, weed control, agricultural engineering, and agricultural economics. And, since Rutgers was a land grant college, it also was the base of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. This meant that many of our faculty members were actively engaged in cutting-edge applied research.

The opportunity to major in general agricultural science rather than in a more specific field such as botany, soil science, or animal husbandry played to my innate desire to see issues in the broadest possible light. It also led me to integrate ideas across fields of knowledge. At a time when there were no majors in environmental science, a major in general agricultural science was about as close as a person could get.

Because of its sterling reputation for science offerings, the College of Agriculture appealed to many premed students as well. To say that Rutgers’ soil science department was outstanding is an understatement. In 1943, Albert Schatz, a graduate student, discovered streptomycin in heavily manured farmyard soil outside the Rutgers plant pathology building and college stables. He was twenty-three years old, one of several graduate students working with Professor Selman Waksman. The team discovered eighteen antibiotics including streptomycin, actinomycin, and neomycin, which we know commercially as Neosporin.

In 1952 Waksman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In the summer of 1954, the new Institute of Microbiology opened at a large, freshly constructed building on the Rutgers campus funded largely with streptomycin and neomycin royalties. The discovery of streptomycin and the many other antibiotics that followed at the Rutgers College of Agriculture fundamentally altered the practice of medicine worldwide.

Part of the required curriculum at the ag school was a one-year course in public speaking. Taught by Richard Reager, author of the then-popular college textbook, You Can Talk Well, it was the single most useful course I had at Rutgers. Completing it did not automatically make one a great speaker, but it did provide a grounding in the basic principles of effective public speaking. I learned how to engage an audience, to speak from notes rather than reading a prepared text, and to focus a talk on a goal.

I could not have known then that one day I would earn millions of dollars in speaking fees. The first time I got a $50,000 speaking fee, I could not resist comparing it with picking tomatoes at 10¢ a basket. To earn as much by picking tomatoes, a person would have to pick a half-million baskets—more than anyone could do in a lifetime. The investment in education has paid handsomely, though I never keep the speaking fees for myself.

Another required course was in technical composition, a course designed mostly for researchers on how to structure an article and how to write clearly when dealing with complex technical issues. It, too, would come in handy. My term paper was entitled “The Economic Importance of the Earthworm.”

These courses in communication, both oral and written, played to my deep desire to communicate complex issues to people in terms they could understand.

Some people aspire from an early age to be a writer. I never did—and I still don’t—but if you want to share your research findings, your “ideas,” with large numbers of people, you have no choice but to write. So here I am, a reluctant writer, with shelves filled with my own books.

Rutgers was hard work, but I had time for some play. One of my early acquaintances on campus was Tom Price from Long Branch, New Jersey. Early in our freshman year, while we were out walking after dinner, we came across a Volkswagen Beetle. Since it was such a novelty car, we wondered if we could lift the rear end off the ground. When we discovered that we could, we thought it would be fun to place one wheel on the curb. It was! Tom, being an inch or two taller and about twenty-five pounds heavier was exceptionally strong, as the world would soon learn.

In January 1952, as a freshman, Tom tried out for crew and made the team. Shortly thereafter Coach Logg teamed him with his own son, Chuck Logg Jr., who was a senior, so the two could compete in the pairs event in the U.S. Olympic trials. Chuck and Tom won that competition, earning the right to represent the United States in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. There they won the gold medal.

Tom’s ascent through the rowing ranks was extraordinary. He began rowing in January and he and Chuck won their Olympic gold in July. In six months, he had gone from novice to world champion! The keys to the U.S. team’s victory were Chuck’s experience and Tom’s power.

My closest friend at Rutgers was Larry Suydam, also an aggie. We had a number of classes together, including one in bacteriology with a good-natured professor, Herbert Metzger. Each week we had an afternoon lab experiment that required a written report. One week we decided to do a report together but each of us would claim it as our own. We signed it LES. Larry, whose name was Lawrence Earl Suydam, claimed the paper was his because those were his initials. I claimed it was mine because it was the short version of my first name. Professor Metzger understood very well what was going on, but he couldn’t figure out how to resolve the issue. Finally he graded the paper and simply gave each of us the same grade. But we knew we could get away with this only once.

In 1958, Larry moved his keen interest, enthusiasm, and sense of humor from North to South Jersey, to become associate manager of my tomato-growing operation. We are lifelong friends.

The economics of getting an education at Rutgers worked out well. Not only did Rutgers offer a full-tuition scholarship, but the College of Agriculture, under the widely admired leadership of Dean Frank Helyar, had also created housing opportunities for needy students. During the Depression, Dean Helyar had taken an inventory of the entire 170-acre College of Agriculture campus, looking for nooks and crannies that were not actually used for anything, searching for places where students could live. The Phelps House, an old farmhouse on the west side of the campus that had come with one of the college’s land acquisitions, comfortably housed twelve students. Another, where I lived, was “the Towers,” an unused area atop the entomology building. This space, where the walls were mostly glass, may once have been a greenhouse. It housed eleven of us.

One attraction of these group living arrangements was that we had our own kitchen and dining area. We contributed a modest fee to cover food costs. Each student would take a turn doing the shopping and preparing dinner for a week, which meant we only had to shop and cook one or two weeks a semester and we got to enjoy everyone’s home cooking. The tendency was for each person to prepare his mother’s favorite dishes. While our meals were never lavish, and cooking skills varied, we actually ate rather well. Dinner was a time for sharing ideas and experiences, a break before evening study.

One of the more illustrious members of our group was Jim Davis, the end on the Rutgers football team. In those days, players did not specialize in offense or defense. They played both. I was intrigued with Jim as an outstanding athlete. And since he had grown up in the city, he was fascinated by my farm background and tomato-growing operation.

In exchange for these living arrangements on the college farm, we each had some campus responsibility. In my case, it was to open the college library from 7 to 9 p.m. two nights a week. It was an ideal job. Because few books were checked out and there were not many visitors in the evening, it was a great place to work on my own class assignments.

One Sunday afternoon on the farm during my sophomore year at Rutgers, as I was packing my bag to head back to school and preparing to say good-bye, Pop pulled from his pocket a $10 bill and offered it to me to help with school. This came as a complete surprise because we had never talked about the folks helping me through college. They could barely make ends meet, so helping me at college was not something I’d ever even thought about. I can’t remember whether or not I accepted the $10. I hope I did because it would have made Pop feel good.

At Rutgers, I learned some things about myself. One was that while I excelled at things that I wanted to do, I did poorly at things I did not want to do! In my freshman year, algebra was a required course. I had difficulty seeing the value of algebra in growing tomatoes. So I devoted little time to studying it, rationalizing that since I scored high on math aptitude tests I could somehow be sharp enough when the final exam came to make it through the course. But when the postcard arrived at the end of the first semester, I had received an F in algebra. I had to take the course again.

Algebra aside, my overall academic record merited nomination for membership in Alpha Zeta, the oldest national agricultural honor society. Among the various qualifying steps was to write a scientific paper on an assigned topic. Mine was to investigate “Some Effects of Para-chlorophenoxyacetic acid on the Parthenocarpic Set of Tomato Fruit.”

In high school, I had been able to do sports, to farm, and to still maintain a decent academic record. I could not do that in college with the heavy courseload, a part-time job, and the commuting between the campus and the farm during the tomato season. Sports had to go. Although I did well on the freshman cross-country and track teams, it became clear that I could not afford the training time needed.

In a recent conversation, Larry Suydam reminded me that on a weekend in our sophomore year he accompanied me to Bridgeton to help with the plowing. We arrived Friday night and rose early on Saturday morning to start plowing the fields I had rented. We took turns on the tractor, plowing all day Saturday, all night Saturday, and all day Sunday before heading back to campus. Such was life when combining school and farming! Sometimes weekends would not be enough to get all the farming done and I would have to miss classes for a day or two.

Social life was restricted both by time and resources, with dating limited largely to hometown girls on weekends. The girl I dated throughout this period was Harriett Pennington, who went on to become a radiologist. During this same time, a group of us living on the college farm organized a square dance demonstration group, the Rutgers Promenaders. Led by Karl Reinhardt, a housemate and square dance caller, we performed at various events. Today, fifty-nine years later, the Promenaders are still going strong.

Though time was scarce, I did participate in the university’s intramural wrestling tournament, a competition for wrestling teams from the many fraternities on campus and other living groups. In my sophomore year, our college farm group entered a team. I helped to organize and coach the College Farm Wrestlers. We did well but did not win the tournament. In our junior year, we were much stronger—and we walked away with the title. After losing to one of us, a fraternity team wrestler was overheard saying, “Those farmers are strong.”

In our senior year, we totally dominated the tournament, putting a wrestler in the finals in virtually every weight class. Ironically, I was the only member of the college farm team who had actually wrestled before—which is why, by default, I became the coach. Fortunately, intramural competition required only a rudimentary mastery of basic wrestling skills to fare well. A little organization and a focused effort went a long way. Our two championship trophies were proudly displayed in the ag college library.

Early in my senior year, I realized that by the end of the first semester I would satisfy the requirements for graduation. This opened the attractive option of taking a package of agricultural education courses that included a six-week stretch of practice teaching. It was my good fortune to be assigned to Woodstown High School, a progressive rural school, roughly forty minutes from the farm, for the practice stint. Teaching agriculture was attractive not only because I enjoyed it but also because if I ever suffered a physical injury while farming, teaching could be my fallback career.

As we were coming down the homestretch in our senior year, we had to start making a set of decisions about what to do next. At about this time, we were asked whether we wanted our diplomas to read “Bachelor of Science” or “Bachelor of Science in Agriculture.” The overwhelming majority of students opted for the plain BS because they thought it would give them access to a broader range of job opportunities. But a handful of us, including me, wanted to be identified as agricultural scientists. We wanted to be known as aggies. It was a matter of pride.

As we approached graduation, many of my classmates began interviewing for jobs with various agribusiness firms, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, or the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. Since I might be offered a job that I would find attractive, I did not plant tomatoes that year. But when the time came, I could not bring myself to interview for jobs. Growing tomatoes was what I really wanted to do.

After graduation in the spring of 1955, without tomatoes to look after that season, I accepted a job as a truck driver for Seabrook Farms, a large food-growing and processing company that was near home and, among other things, was one of the pioneers in freezing vegetables. As we moved into the fall, it was time to harvest spinach. The truck followed the spinach cutter through the field. The mechanically cut spinach went up an escalator and dropped into the truck, which resembled a dump truck, except that its body was much larger. The trick, of course, was always to keep the truck in the right position so the spinach would fall into the truck and not onto the ground. That was the defining skill of the job.

At the end of the year, perhaps influenced by my truck driving skills, Seabrook Farms offered me a position as an assistant manager of the Salem/Woodstown division, a 3,200-acre spread of vegetables. Sweet corn, lima beans, peas, and spinach were among the principal crops. The manager was Gene Taylor, a classmate and friend from Rutgers. The entire operation was highly mechanized. We had a staff of perhaps eight or ten tractor drivers and equipment operators, plus mechanics whose job it was to keep the equipment going all the time. Sometimes we worked around the clock in shifts to get the lima beans planted or the peas harvested on time. Overall, it was a well-organized, scientifically advanced operation.

I began in this new position on January 1, 1956. This phase of my career was to be short-lived, however. Kathleen Hoffmeyer (now Petri), one of the four women in our agriculture college class and a friend for several years, had been filling in for our Cumberland County 4-H Club agent, Kenneth Picket, while he was on sabbatical. When she learned that she could nominate a local candidate for the International Farm Youth Exchange program, which was managed by the National 4-H Club Foundation, she proposed me. A few months later I learned that I had been selected as one of ten U.S. farmers, all recent college graduates, to go to India and live with village families.